Can You Only Write in One Genre?

 

by Michael Cristiano

As a writer, the last thing I want to do is restrict myself. Yes, it’s true, there are genres that I will never write (erotica, true crime, nonfiction textbooks on astrophysics), but other than that, I’m open to pretty much anything. I love straddling the line between genres, often bridging fantasy, science fiction, and paranormal and then throwing in some literary flair.

So, imagine my surprise when I was told that I should pick and stick to one genre. My conversation went something like this:

Me: “My most recent work is a blend of fantasy and sci-fi, but I have ideas that venture into horror, paranormal, and even contemporary fiction.”

Acquaintance-With-Some-Writing-Experience: “Aren’t you worried?”

Me: “No. Why?”

Acquaintance-With-Some-Writing-Experience: “I learned in my creative writing courses that authors should stick to one genre. That way, they become really good at writing it, and they become specialized in that field.”

I’m not going to lie, I understand the logic, but I was taken aback. First of all, I haven’t taken many courses. I took a few in high school and one in university, but I didn’t major in creative writing (and I didn’t want to, but that’s for another post). Most of what I learned about writing was a trial and error of sorts: reading a lot, writing a lot (of crap, I might add), getting feedback from beta-readers.

But I was completely floored that a creative writing instructor would tell students that they had to pick one genre and only one genre, and any straying was literary suicide.

Needless to say, I disagreed with this conclusion vehemently. I didn’t really say what I was thinking, giving my acquaintance some response between apathy and “to each his own”. There’s nothing wrong with writing only one genre, but there are two fundamental problems with the argument my acquaintance presented. Observe.

 

Tastes Change

Writers, like all other human beings, are not static. If you had given me a salad 5 years ago, and you happened to put onions in it, I would have picked all of them out, avoiding them like they were hemlock or something. Now, however, I love onions. Put onions in EVERYTHING! I’m not even sorry for my stinky breath.

The same goes for writing. When I was younger, I loved Harry Potter. In fact, I loved it so much that I wanted to write a series about a school that taught the occult arts, and instead of wizards and witches, the students were known as little devils. Luckily, that idea didn’t last long, and as I read more, I grew to want to write more. Even now, I read more widely than ever: fantasy, science fiction, young adult, literary, horror. And ultimately, what kind of writer doesn’t get impacted by what they’re reading?

For me, diversifying is a form of improvement. By changing up what I read, I am exposed to different forms of writing, and trying them out helps me hone my craft. Is everything I produce good? Of course not, but if I’ve written something that I love and that I believe in, why should I deny it its chance to shine because it isn’t in the pre-determined genre I’ve chosen?

 

The Greats Don’t Always Stick with This Rule

After the Harry Potter series, JK Rowling wrote a contemporary drama and then a series of mystery novels under the name Robert Galbraith. Margaret Atwood is known for bending the rules and writing across genres, often spanning mystery, science fiction, and literary fiction. Do I think I’m on the same level as these greats? Well, no. But they’ve found success in multiple genres, so why can’t I?

Regardless of these two arguments, however, I think this solution to this issue comes down to one thing: where does your inspiration lie? There are many successful writers that stick to a single genre, and they do quite well. There are ALSO successful writers who write across genres. Do I think this has impacts on the quality of the writing itself? No. I think if a writer writes well enough, they can tackle any genre they’re passionate about.

 

 

 

Previously titled “You Can Only Write One Genre for the Rest of Your Writerly Life!”

Guest post contributed by Michael Cristiano. He works in editing and acquisitions for Curiosity Quills Press, and his freelance work has appeared on websites such as Nexopia, FluentU, and BlushPost. Check out his blog for more of his work.

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31 thoughts on “Can You Only Write in One Genre?”

  1. I completely agree with you that a writer should write in multiple genres and I think the advice to stick to one in order to perfect your craft is ridiculous advice. Pushing ourselves to write differently only serves to help us discover our unique voices, I think. The trouble with writing in multiple genres comes from the marketing side. If your readers don’t know what to expect from your work, you run the risk of confusing and potentially losing them. I think many highly successful authors are able to pull it off because they’ve been at the craft for so long their readership has also had time to grow and evolve and there’s a trust built up that allows a reader to give a little more leeway to a long time favorite author. The advice I have heard is to publish at least 3 works in the same genre before publishing something different. I don’t know that I will be able to follow that, but I think there’s probably some wisdom in it.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I liked your post. I write in many genres, but I’m publishing a book in the humor category. I like to make people laugh, it is an easy read, and more importantly, it’s marketable. I like to write more serious things, and hope to branch out into other genres. I think its possible.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I started with humor, too. In some ways it does seem to be easier to market. There aren’t as many marketing avenues that cater to it, but there seems to be a much broader audience.

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  3. I see and hear this constantly and shake my head. It’s one of the most illogical ‘tenets’ held (and taught) by many.

    If creativity and passion are things innate within a writer, why (and how) would anyone want to limit it?

    A successful writer of thrillers can’t write a romantic comedy? A scifi writer can’t do literary fiction? Who’s coming up with rules like this?

    What if a writer does stay within one genre for YEARS… with little or no success, switches genres and BADABING! Bestseller!

    We’re inundated with enough rules, theories, and guidelines – which vary depending on what book you read or which search engine you use.

    A writer writes… end of story.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. At uni, we did a genre module in which we were taught that genre-blending was desirable and an ideal way to ‘make it new’. I can’t think who would try and restrict writers in that way… :/

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  5. Two-fold response:

    First, I have written in several genres. Not intentionally, either. I just wrote the stories and then had to figure out where to slot them on the list. (Yes, marketing gurus may now groan. Loudly. Go ahead, I’ll wait.) Each of my novels has sold a few copies organically, but none of them have any kind of track record worth mentioning. They are all published under the same author name because I don’t have enough material to launch the careers of four different pseudonyms. (!) So, I quietly toss “multiple genres” on top of the heap of “reasons I guess maybe my books are not selling.” Honestly, I don’t know if it matters or not, at least for an unknown author.

    Second, John Grisham didn’t publish A Painted House until after he published several successful legal thrillers. I’m not sure how well it would have done if it had been his second published book. Indeed, it is more common for well-known authors to publish different genres under different names.

    Genre has long been a cornerstone of author brand and I don’t think that has really changed. For me, I’m just writing the stories that come to me and they are all over the map. Fantasy, Suspense and Military Sci-Fi so far. Next up is a Western. (Gee whiz). Probably would have been better if I had written three fantasies up to now and was working on my fourth. But I don’t have four fantasies in me. I have a fantasy, a s military sci-fi…

    And maybe that is the difference between writing books and selling books. (Marketing gurus nod and point now.) But maybe genre lock is something we can change, along with the myriad of other shattered rules. Or maybe not. But when your stories are not genre locked, you can either write or wait. I figure writing is better.

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  6. I appreciate the topic of your post. I have one genre I put my major focus on, but a few others I’ve dabbled in with short story ideas.
    I’d like to be good enough to be marketable. I thinks that why I don’t let the gate open to new ideas.
    You’ve given me much to think about.

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  7. I agree with everything you say, but I’ve learned the hard way this is only true if you don’t confront with the market.

    The reason why in that course they recommand to stick to one genre is so to have the possibility to build a readership. Because yes, humans beings like to expereiment, but most of all they like to be fairly sure what they’re getting when they put their money out.
    Today, readers are more specialised than ever, far more specialised than any writer. When they look for a new book to buy, they will first choose the category on the online bookshop and go from there. If your book has a few elements in that catgory but not enough to be consired a book ‘in’ that category, there is a high chance that readers won’t even see it, let alone choose it and buy it.
    Unfortunally, this is how online bookshops work.

    Taking the example of a successful author is very dangerous. Successful authors are allowed to do all kinds of things normal authors like us are not allowed by the market. If an author with millions of reader like JK Rowling decides she wants to try a different genre, her publisher (if with some hesitation, be assured of it) will agree, because at least a part of those million readers are bound to follow her.
    If an author like me builds a readership in historical fiction and then moves to historical fantasy, it is likely a lot of my readers won’t follow me. If the shift is sharper, like for example moving from historical to erotica, it won’t work at all. You’ll have to build a completely new readership.

    I’ve learned the hard way that even mixing genres is very tricky. My trilogy is equal part historical and supernatural. Agents adviced me to decide which one it is. Chose one of the two genres and push that one, with the other as support, because in this way it will be clear what kind of reader to address.
    I won’t do that, I like my trilogy as it is… but I know the odds are against me.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I feel like writing one genre works for some, like Amish fiction writers… their fans would not be too happy if they came out with something with raunchy sex lol. but for others they could be a bit more open to other things as it wouldn’t be such a big shock to their fan base. I say branch out but only write what you love and not what you think others would love to read.

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  9. It is a strange thing for a creative endeavor like writing to be so restricted, but as others have said, it’s the conflict between writing as a creative act and writing as a business.

    At the end of the day writers are free to write whatever we wish, as long as we recognize that some of our stories may not appeal to our existing audiences. I’ve heard of a few authors that maintain relationships with multiple publishers, to fit their different genres.

    I once read an article that suggested Richard Matheson could have been one of the more famous authors of our time, if he had been more consistent in his writing. Instead he chose to change genres frequently, but the choice is always there, as long as you know and accept the risks.

    Personally I think it’s good to experiment, as long as you also recognize and maintain a regular presence within your primary genre; and there’s always room to dabble. Even a romantic comedy can have a few suspenseful moments to scare the audience.

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  10. Stick to what you love. Usually, what you love is what you’re good at. This is why most successful writers stick to one genre. It’s not because someone told them to do it, or because those are the rules to becoming a bestselling author. It’s because that’s what their soul is made of and they have to write it down. Usually (not always) people have a passion for ONE specific “genre” and that is why they stick to it. When you write with true passion, your writing will stand out.

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  11. I love writing Police mysteries. The reason is simple. I’ve lived most of what I write.

    However, I also like writing Science Fiction. Police mysteries represents the world I’ve been living in. Science Fiction represents the worlds I’d love to see and explore.

    Of the two, I’d say I like the Police side better. The sum of those stories represent what made me and others I know into the people we are today. I can’t help but be passionate about it. In a lot of ways, when I write a chapter or two in one of my mysteries, it’s like putting on a nice old coat.

    Science Fiction is a coat I have to find, put on, and sometimes it’s a forced fit.

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  12. I agree whole-heartedly. To be honest, I get pretty sick of people telling me to ‘research the market’ and stick to a certain style or genre. There is something cynical and businesslike about this, which, for me, takes away from the joy of writing. Perhaps it’s why I’m not a millionaire…Just look at Steven King, though. He writes horror, time travel, suspense, history and more. Margaret Atwood is another notable example, as you say.
    I’m determined to focus on the quality of what I write, rather than whether I’m pleasing the masses with predictable, marketable content.
    Thanks for the interesting post!

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  13. I’m barely what I would call an author, but I think it’s better to stick to one or two genres. I like to write romance and mystery in the Christian series. Those go together nicely, but how many genres is that? That’s been my biggest problem–knowing what to call the genre I’m writing. I was floored to find out there are so many!

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